Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Does changing Language inevitably create Doctrinal Change?

There is no doubt but that the 1960s into the 1970s witnessed a major revolution in the way in which the English-speaking people in the West (North) addressed and referred to the Deity, GOD. The evidence for this abounds in terms of the new Bible translations, new Prayer Books, new hymnody and new Sunday School and devotional material of this period.

But was this revolution neutral in terms of doctrinal change. Was it simply and only a linguistic change, a move (as is said) from "traditional" [or "Elizabethan"] English to "contemporary" English?

This question makes us ask the further one: "Is it possible - living in a revolutionary social and cultural period -- to move from a long established form of language for prayer into a new (experimental) one without at the same time causing or creating or absorbing (wittingly or unwittingly) some doctrinal change?"

Theoretically, one has to state, that it should be possible as an academic exercise to translate the New Testament or a Canticle from the 4th Century AD into modern or contemporary English and to do so accurately. Yet were some of the paraphrases of the 1960s/1970s so committed to being relevant as to become inaccurate?

Turning to Liturgy, I note that when the modern liturgist is faced with a piece of Cranmerian prose from the mid-16th century, then the rendering into "contemporary" English of this or that part of The Book of Common Prayer is even more open to the possibility of changing the meaning in the effort to be "modern" and relevant! I can say this because of the evidence provided by, for example, (a) Recent "Evangelical" & official English & Australian attempts to put parts of the BCP (1662) into contemporary English; (b) the products of the several International Commissions on English for the Liturgy from the 1970s; and (c) the way in which the Rite I material in the American Episcopal 1979 Prayer Book (though in traditional language) is modified doctrinally and structurally to conform to the doctrine and structure of the Rite II (modern and contemporary) texts.

What seems to have happened both in the Roman Church and in the Anglican Churches, as well as in most of Protestantism, is that the ethos of relevance involved in the translation project of the 1960s/1970s actually ensured that inevitably doctrinal change, minor or major depending on various conditions, occurred. Relevance as a powerful motion of the soul caused change towards an understanding that fitted well with relevance. And this change did not involve mere secondary matters but ways of speaking of
and describing the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the nature of man before God as sinful creature, the redemption and salvation of God for man, and the nature of the Sacraments. Further, it involved the absorption into God-language of the language of human rights and liberation.

So if one compares the traditional Texts and Rites, Catechisms and Creeds, in Latin and English with the contemporary Texts and Rites one can see, if one is patient and careful, changes in doctrine because of changes in words, changes that go well beyond the change of Thee to You! Of course 99% of those using the modern texts would not be aware of the doctrinal changes but some would sense that something is wrong, even if they cannot precisely identify that wrongness! (Thus, young people keep on joining the Prayer Book Society of the USA and of England!)

It is possible that the Orthodox Churches which have gone for renderings (often lacking in quality, I think) of the Divine Liturgy into contemporary rather than traditional language have escaped most of this problem simply because they have retained the identical ceremonial and drama which is a powerful means of establishing meaning. But in Western Liturgies and services changes in structure and ceremonial have gone with changes in language and so retaining old meaning is the more difficult.

It seems to me that the motivation of the liturgists and the general ethos in which they do their work of "updating" affects profoundly their products and this is the more obvious when the work is done by a committee! This observation applies to the whole of Christendom I think. Perhaps I ought to try to write a book to set all this out in more detail!

This said, it maybe suggested that one good reason for retaining the use of the traditional English form of prayer is to preserve both orthodoxy in doctrine and morals and another is to retain a sense of holy awe and reverence in the worship of the Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity.

Trinity 2002.

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor,
England & Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large
of The Prayer Book Society of America

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